Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither, and lose both.
-- Benjamin Franklin

Memorial Day Thoughts

From the Memorial Day New York Times Op-Ed. Never heard it said better:

By the Light of Other Wars
Published: May 31, 2004

In most of America’s cemeteries today, you will find fresh flowers on the graves of men and women who have died defending this country. Memorial Day is the official commemoration of their sacrifice. For most of the people who have taken the trouble to decorate those graves, the year contains other, private days of memorial as well birthdays, anniversaries and all the unexpected remembrances of someone who is no longer here. There is no one way to miss a dead soldier or to honor him. Some families keep only those private holidays, and some welcome the chance for public acknowledgment.

The freshest graves, the most recent casualties, often have the most flowers, and they usually sustain the most forcible grief. The oldest graves of the war dead in this nation’s history are now very old, and many of them lie forgotten, as forgotten as some of the wars they fought in. What those deaths accomplished is written into the fabric of this country, no matter how purposeful or purposeless they may have seemed at the time.

Military training teaches a small, powerful coherence the devotion of soldiers to their unit. One of the shocks many grieving families must deal with is the sudden knowledge that this military coherence was stronger than anything the family itself could offer. Soldiers fighting in the large causes tend to die for the small causes for a sense of duty to one another, the building block upon which armies are built.

Every family that has lost a son or daughter in battle has had to decide whether the large justifications of war actually justify that final, particular sacrifice. Many Americans are tempted to let the valuation of those deaths rest solely with the families themselves. We ease the thought of those deaths with the words that have always seemed most persuasive over the grave. We ease the memory of them by folding them into the fabric of history, as if the task of saying what those deaths really meant lay beyond us.

But we who are alive kin or no kin also have a right to ask why these soldiers died, not just now, in this present war, but throughout the course of our history. The language of those larger causes words like America, freedom, liberty, patriotism are used in our names as well.

Today, each generation looks back to its own war World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the gulf war and Iraq. In each of those wars, a soldier’s death was final, the sense of duty and service as acute as in any other war. In that sense, the meaning of those deaths has not changed over time. What is different, for each of those wars, is the sense of national necessity that lay behind them. Some of America’s wars have truly been fought for the very principles that underpin this nation’s existence. Others have not. But nothing can dishonor the dead, not even the failures of the living.

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